The Chicago School of Economics

Posted by PITHOCRATES - March 5th, 2012

Economics 101

Monetarists believe in Laissez-Faire Capitalism and Fiat Money

Keynesian economics supports hands-on government management of the economy.  Using fiscal and monetary policy to move the aggregate demand curve at will to end business cycles.  The boom bust cycles between inflation and recession.  Leaving only the inflationary boom times.   Using tax and spend fiscal policies.  Or simply printing money for government expenditures.  For in Keynesian economics consumption is key.  The more of it the better.  And when people stop buying things the government should step in and pick up the consumption slack.

The Austrian school is a more hands-off approach.  The markets should be free.  Laissez-faire capitalism.  And the business cycle should remain.  For it is a necessary part of the economy.  Part of the automatic pricing mechanism that adjusts supply to meet demand.  When people demand more prices go up.  Encouraging businesses to expand production to sell at these higher prices (inflationary expansion).  Then when supply exceeds demand businesses have excessive inventory that they can’t sell anymore at those higher prices.  So they cut their prices to sell off this excessive supply (deflationary recession).  Also, that hands-off approach means no playing with monetary policy.  Austrians prefer a gold standard to prevent central bank mischief that results in inflation.

The Chicago school of economics takes a little from each of these schools.  Like the Austrians they believe that government should take a hands-off approach in the economy.  Markets should be free with minimum government intervention.  But unlike Austrians, they hate gold.  And blame the gold standard for causing the Great Depression.  Instead, they believe in the flexibility of fiat money.  As do the Keynesians.  But with a strict monetary policy to minimize inflation (which is why proponents of this school were also called monetarists).  Unlike the Keynesians.  For monetarists believe only a government’s monetary policy can cause runaway inflation.

(This is a gross simplification of these three schools.  A more detailed and comprehensive study would be a bit overwhelming as well as extremely boring.  But you get the gist.  At least, for the point of this discussion.)

We used Gold and Silver for Money because it was Durable, Portable, Divisible, Fungible, Scarce, Etc.

At the heart of the difference between these schools is money.  So a refresher course on money is in order.  Money stores wealth temporarily.  When we create something of value (a good or a service) we can use that value to trade for something we want.  We used to barter with other creative people who made value of their own.  But as the economy got more complex it took more and more time to find people to trade with.  You had to find someone who had what you wanted who also wanted what you had.  If you baked bread and wanted shoes you had to find a shoemaker who wanted bread.  Not impossible.  But it took a lot of time to find these people to trade with.

Then someone had a brilliant idea.  They figured they could trade their good or service NOT for something THEY wanted but something OTHER people would want.  Such as tobacco.  Whiskey.  Or grain.  These things were valuable.  Other people would want them.  So they could easily trade their good or service for one of these things.  And then later trade it for what they wanted.  And money was born.  For various reasons (durable, portable, divisible, fungible, scarce, etc.) we chose gold and silver as our money of choice.  Due to the inconvenience and danger of carrying these precious metals around, though, we stored our precious metals in a vault and used ‘receipts’ of that deposit as currency.  And the gold standard was born.

To understand the gold standard think of a balance scale.  The kind where you put weights on one side to balance the load on the other.  When the scale balances the weight of the load equals the sum of the weights needed to make the scale balance.  Now imagine a scale like this where the VALUE of all goods and services (created by talented people) are on one side.  And all the precious metal in the gold standard are on the other.  These must be in balance.  And the sum of our currency must equal the amount of precious metal.  (Because they are ‘receipts’ for all that gold and silver we have locked up someplace.)  This prevents the government from creating inflation.  If you want to issue more money you have to put more precious metal onto the scale.  You just can’t print money.  For when you do and you don’t increase the amount of precious metal on the scale you depreciate the currency.  Because more of it equals the same amount of precious metal.  For more currency to equal the same amount of precious metal then each unit of currency has to be worth less.  And when each unit is worth less it takes more of them to buy the same things they bought before.  Thus raising prices.  If a government prints more currency without adding more precious metals on the scale they increase the value of that precious metal when MEASURED in that currency.  It becomes worth more.  In other words, you can trade that precious metal for more of that depreciated currency than before they depreciated it.  You do this too much and eventually people will prefer the precious metal over the currency.  They’ll lose faith in the currency.  And when that happens the economy collapses.  As people move back towards a barter system.

Milton Friedman wanted the Responsibility of the Gold Standard without Gold’s Constraint on increasing the Money Supply

A healthy economy needs a stable currency.  One that people don’t lose faith in.  Imagine trying to shop without money.  Instead, taking things to trade for the groceries you need.  Not very efficient.  So we need a stable currency.  And the gold standard gives us that.  However, the thing that makes gold or silver a stable currency, its scarcity, creates a liability.  Let’s go back to that balance scale.  To the side that contains the value of all goods and services.  Let’s say it increases.  But the precious metal on the other side doesn’t.  Which means the value of that precious metal increases.  The currency must equal the value of that precious metal.  So the value of the currency increases.  And prices fall.  It takes less of it to buy the same things it bought before.  Not a bad thing for consumers.  But it plays havoc with those who borrowed money before this appreciation.  Because they now have to repay money that is worth more than when what is was worth when they borrowed it.  Which hurt farmers during the 1920s.  Who borrowed a lot of money to mechanize their farms.  Which helped to greatly increase farm yields.  And increased food supplies while demand remained unchanged.  Which, of course, lowered farm prices.  The supply increased on the scale.  But the amount of gold didn’t.  Thus increasing the value of the gold.  And the currency.  Making prices fall.  Kicking off the deflationary spiral of the Great Depression.  Or so say the monetarists.

Now the monetarists wanted to get rid of the gold supply.  The Keynesians did, too.  But they wanted to do it so they could print and spend money.  Which they did during the Seventies.  Creating both a high unemployment rate and a high inflation rate.  Something that wasn’t supposed to happen in Keynesian economics.  For their solution to fix unemployment was to use inflation to stimulate aggregate demand in the economy.  Thus reducing unemployment.  But when they did this during the Seventies it didn’t work.  The Keynesians were befuddled.  But not the monetarists.  Who understood that the expansion of the money supply (printing money to spend) was responsible for that inflation.  People understood this, too.  And had rational expectations of how that Keynesian policy was going to end.  Higher prices.  So they raised prices before the stimulus could impact unemployment.  To stay ahead of the coming inflation.  So the Keynesian stimulus did nothing to reduce unemployment.  It just caused runaway inflation.  And raised consumer prices.  Which, in turn, decreased economic activity.  And further increased unemployment.

Perhaps the most well known economist in the Chicago school was Milton Friedman.  Who wanted the responsibility of the gold standard.  But without gold’s constraint on increasing the money supply to meet demand.  The key to monetarism.  To increase the money supply to match the growth in the economy.  To keep that scale balanced.  But without gold.  Instead, putting the money supply directly on the scale.  Printing fiat money as needed.  Great power.  But with great power comes great responsibility.  And if you abuse that power (as in printing money irresponsibly) the consequences of that abuse will be swift.  Thanks to the rational expectations of the people.  Another tenet of the Chicago school.

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Inflation and Deflation

Posted by PITHOCRATES - December 26th, 2011

Economics 101

When Demand is Greater than Supply there’s Inflation, when Supply is greater there is Deflation

Agriculture advances gave us food surpluses.  Food surpluses gave us a division of labor.  The division of labor gave us trade.  Money made that trade more efficient.  Religion and the Rule of Law allowed great gatherings of people to live and work together in urban settings.  Free trade let us maximize this economic output and elevated our standard of living.  Free labor sustained economic growth by increasing the number of people making economic exchanges.  Prices automated the process of assigning value and allocating scarce resources (that have alternative uses).  And provided incentive and competition.  The free movement of prices in our economy, then, is very important.  So important that we track extremes in these movements and give them special names.  Inflation.  And deflation.

When the economy is good we typically see prices increase.  Because the greater amount of economic activity is competing for the same scarce resources.  So businesses ‘bid’ up the price of these scarce resources.  To make sure they get what they need before someone else beats them to them.  This more intense competition for these resources causes their prices to rise.  We call this inflation.  Telling other suppliers that demand is greater than the current supply.  This encourages suppliers to bring more supplies to market.  And attracts others into the market.  As this happens the available supply of these scarce resources increases.  And approaches the level of demand.  Where prices then stabilize.

This is the free market correcting prices.  Prices were high because demand was greater than supply.  When supply caught up to demand they stopped rising.  And if supply continues to grow and exceeds demand they will start falling.  Because those scarce resources won’t be so scarce anymore.  Which happens when people bring too much supply to market.  Of course they have no way of knowing this.  Until the prices tell them so.  Falling prices, then, are a signal that supply has exceeded demand.  So suppliers scale back on what they bring to market.  We call this fall in prices deflation.  And when supply drops at or below demand the price correction is complete.  And prices stop falling.

When Government Interferes with Market Prices we can get Bubbles where both Prices and Supply are High

This price-correction deflation goes by another name.  Recession.  And we call this inflation/deflation cycle the business cycle.  Often referred to as a boom-bust cycle.  Times are good on the inflation side.  But not so good on the deflation side.  Because recessions aren’t fun.  Unless you like periods of high unemployment.  But it’s a natural and necessary part of the business cycle.  It’s how the free market corrects prices.  Allocates scarce resources that have alternative uses.  And provides incentive and competition.  Everything that makes free market capitalism function.  Providing the highest standard of living man has ever known.

But some in government like to tinker.  They think why not make the inflation part last longer?  And try to end the deflation part?  So they play with the tools at their disposal.  Monetary policy.  Fiscal policy.  And regulatory policy.  To stimulate demand beyond what the market is demanding.  To keep the good times rolling.  Where we live with permanent but ‘manageable’ inflation.  And avoid deflationary periods all together.  And recessions.  Sounds good.  In theory, at least.  But it rarely ends well when the government interferes with market prices.

When they interfere with market prices they give false information to those in the market.  Continued inflation means continued high prices.  Prices go even higher than they would have if left to market forces.  Indicating a high demand when there is none.  So suppliers rush in to meet this false demand.  Greatly increasing supply beyond demand.  Creating what we call a bubble.  Where both prices and supply are high.  An artificial creation.  And one that cannot last.  And when prices do correct they have a lot farther to fall.  As excess supply is sold off at discount prices.  And employers cut back and shed excess capacity.  Creating high levels of unemployment.  And a long and unpleasant recession until prices finally stabilize once again.  When supply once again matches demand.

The More we try to Eliminate the Deflationary Side of the Business Cycle the More Painful the Recession

Interestingly, government interference into the free market was to eliminate the business cycle.  Especially the unpleasant deflationary side of it.  But their actions only made the deflationary side far more painful.  Because it was their actions that created those inflationary bubbles.  Not the market.  Their actions only delayed the inevitable market correction.  It couldn’t stop it.  Nothing can.  The more they tried the bigger the bubbles they created.  And the bigger the bubble the bigger the correction.  And the more painful the recession.

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LESSONS LEARNED #3 “Inflation is just another name for irresponsible government.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - March 4th, 2010

PEOPLE LIKE TO hate banks.  And bankers.  Because they get rich with other people’s money.  And they don’t do anything.  People give them money.  They then loan it and charge interest.  What a scam.

Banking is a little more complex than that.  And it’s not a scam.  Countries without good banking systems are often impoverished, Third World nations.  If you have a brilliant entrepreneurial idea, a lot of good that will do if you can’t get any money to bring it to market.  That’s what banks do.  They collect small deposits from a lot of depositors and make big loans to people like brilliant entrepreneurs.

Fractional reserve banking multiplies this lending ability.  Because only a fraction of a bank’s total depositors will ask for their deposits back at any one time, only a fraction of all deposits are kept at the bank.  Banks loan the rest.  Money comes in.  They keep a running total of how much you deposited.  They then loan out your money and charge interest to the borrower.  And pay you interest on what they borrowed from you so they could make those loans to others.  Banks, then, can loan out more money than they actually have in their vaults.  This ‘creates’ money.  The more they lend the more money they create.  This increases the money supply.  The less they lend the less money they create.  If they don’t lend any money they don’t add to the money supply.  When banks fail they contract the money supply.

Bankers are capital middlemen.  They funnel money from those who have it to those who need it.  And they do it efficiently.  We take car loans and mortgages for granted.  For we have such confidence in our banking system.  But banking is a delicate job.  The economy depends on it.  If they don’t lend enough money, businesses and entrepreneurs may not be able to borrow money when they need it.  If they lend too much, they may not be able to meet the demands of their depositors.  And if they do something wrong or act in any way that makes their depositors nervous, the depositors may run to the bank and withdraw their money.  We call this a ‘run on the bank’ when it happens.  It’s not pretty.  It’s usually associated with panic.  And when depositors withdraw more money than is in the bank, the bank fails.

DURING GOOD ECONOMIC times, businesses expand.  Often they have to borrow money to pay for the costs of meeting growing demand.  They borrow and expand.  They hire more people.  People make more money.  They deposit some of this additional money in the bank.  This creates more money to lend.  Businesses borrow more.  And so it goes.  This saving and lending increases the money supply.  We call it inflation.  A little inflation is good.  It means the economy is growing.  When it grows too fast and creates too much money, though, prices go up. 

Sustained inflation can also create a ‘bubble’ in the economy.  This is due to higher profits than normal because of artificially high prices due to inflation.  Higher selling prices are not the result of the normal laws of supply and demand.  Inflation increases prices.  Higher prices increase a company’s profit.  They grow.  Add more jobs.  Hire more people.  Who make more money.  Who buy more stuff and save more money.  Banks loan more, further increasing the money supply.  Everyone is making more money and buying more stuff.  They are ‘bidding up’ the prices (house prices or dot-com stock prices, for example) with an inflated currency.  This can lead to overvalued markets (i.e., a bubble).  Alan Greenspan called it ‘irrational exuberance’ when testifying to Congress in the 1990s.  Now, a bubble can be pretty, but it takes very little to pop and destroy it.

Hyperinflation is inflation at its worse.  Bankers don’t create it by lending too much.  People don’t create it by bidding up prices.  Governments create it by printing money.  Literally.  Sometimes following a devastating, catastrophic event like war (like Weimar Germany after World War II).  But sometimes it doesn’t need a devastating, catastrophic event.  Just unrestrained government spending.  Like in Argentina throughout much of the 20th century.

During bad economic times, businesses often have more goods and services than people are purchasing.  Their sales will fall.  They may cut their prices to try and boost their sales.  They’ll stop expanding.  Because they don’t need as much supply for the current demand, they will cut back on their output.  Lay people off.  Some may have financial problems.  Their current revenue may not cover their costs.  Some may default on their loans.  This makes bankers nervous.  They become more hesitant in lending money.  A business in trouble, then, may find they cannot borrow money.  This may force some into bankruptcy.  They may default on more loans.  As these defaults add up, it threatens a bank’s ability to repay their depositors.  They further reduce their lending.  And so it goes.  These loan defaults and lack of lending decreases the money supply.  We call it deflation.  We call deflationary periods recessions.  It means the economy isn’t growing.  The money supply decreases.  Prices go down.

We call this the business cycle.  People like the inflation part.  They have jobs.  They’re not too keen on the deflation part.  Many don’t have jobs.  But too much inflation is not good.  Prices go up making everything more expensive.  We then lose purchasing power.  So a recession can be a good thing.  It stops high inflation.  It corrects it.  That’s why we often call a small recession a correction.  Inflation and deflation are normal parts of the business cycle.  But some thought they could fix the business cycle.  Get rid of the deflation part.  So they created the Federal Reserve System (the Fed) in 1913.

The Fed is a central bank.  It loans money to Federal Reserve regional banks who in turn lend it to banks you and I go to.  They control the money supply.  They raise and lower the rate they charge banks to borrow from them.  During inflationary times, they raise their rate to decrease lending which decreases the money supply.  This is to keep good inflation from becoming bad inflation.  During deflationary times, they lower their rate to increase lending which increases the money supply.  This keeps a correction from turning into a recession.  Or so goes the theory.

The first big test of the Fed came during the 1920s.  And it failed. 

THE TWO WORLD wars were good for the American economy.  With Europe consumed by war, their agricultural and industrial output decline.  But they still needed stuff.  And with the wars fought overseas, we fulfilled that need.  For our workers and farmers weren’t in uniform. 

The Industrial Revolution mechanized the farm.  Our farmers grew more than they ever did before.  They did well.  After the war, though, the Europeans returned to the farm.  The American farmer was still growing more than ever (due to the mechanization of the farm).  There were just a whole lot less people to sell their crops to.  Crop prices fell. 

The 1920s was a time America changed.  The Wilson administration had raised taxes due to the ‘demands of war’.  This resulted in a recession following the war.  The Harding administration cut taxes based on the recommendation of Andrew Mellon, his Secretary of the Treasury.  The economy recovered.  There was a housing boom.  Electric utilities were bringing electrical power to these houses.  Which had electrical appliances (refrigerators, washing machines, vacuum cleaners, irons, toasters, etc.) and the new radio.  People began talking on the new telephone.  Millions were driving the new automobile.  People were traveling in the new airplane.  Hollywood launched the motion picture industry and Walt Disney created Mickey Mouse.  The economy had some of the most solid growth it had ever had.  People had good jobs and were buying things.  There was ‘good’ inflation. 

This ‘good’ inflation increased prices everywhere.  Including in agriculture.  The farmers’ costs went up, then, as their incomes fell.  This stressed the farming regions.  Farmers struggled.  Some failed.  Some banks failed with them.  The money supply in these areas decreased.

Near the end of the 1920s, business tried to expand to meet rising demand.  They had trouble borrowing money, though.  The economy was booming but the money supply wasn’t growing with it.  This is where the Fed failed.  They were supposed to expand the money supply to keep pace with economic growth.  But they didn’t.  In fact, the Fed contracted the money supply during this period.  They thought investors were borrowing money to invest in the stock market.  (They were wrong).  So they raised the cost of borrowing money.  To ‘stop’ the speculators.  So the Fed took the nation from a period of ‘good’ inflation into recession.  Then came the Smoot-Hawley Tariff.

Congress passed the Smoot-Hawley Tariff in 1930.  But they were discussing it in committee in 1929.  Businesses knew about it in 1929.  And like any good business, they were looking at how it would impact them.  The bill took high tariffs higher.  That meant expensive imported things would become more expensive.  The idea is to protect your domestic industry by raising the prices of less expensive imports.  Normally, business likes surgical tariffs that raise the cost of their competitor’s imports.  But this was more of an across the board price increase that would raise the cost of every import, which was certain to increase the cost of doing business.  This made business nervous.  Add uncertainty to a tight credit market and business no doubt forecasted higher costs and lower revenues (i.e., a recession).  And to weather a recession, you need a lot of cash on hand to help pay the bills until the economy recovered.  So these businesses increased their liquidity.  They cut costs, laid off people and sold their investments (i.e., stocks) to build a huge cash cushion to weather these bad times to come.  This may have been a significant factor in the selloff in October of 1929 resulting in the stock market crash. 

HERBERT HOOVER WANTED to help the farmers.  By raising crop prices (which only made food more expensive for the unemployed).  But the Smoot-Hawley Tariff met retaliatory tariffs overseas.  Overseas agricultural and industrial markets started to close.  Sales fell.  The recession had come.  Business cut back.  Unemployment soared.  Farmers couldn’t sell their bumper crops at a profit and defaulted on their loans.  When some non-farming banks failed, panic ensued.  People rushed to get their money out of the banks before their bank, too, failed.  This caused a run on the banks.  They started to fail.  This further contracted the money supply.  Recession turned into the Great Depression. 

The Fed started the recession by not meeting its core expectation.  Maintain the money supply to meet the needs of the economy.  Then a whole series of bad government action (initiated by the Hoover administration and continued by the Roosevelt administration) drove business into the ground.  The ONLY lesson they learned from this whole period is ‘inflation good, deflation bad’.  Which was the wrong lesson to learn. 

The proper lesson to learn was that when people interfere with market forces or try to replace the market decision-making mechanisms, they often decide wrong.  It was wrong for the Fed to contract the money supply (to stop speculators that weren’t there) when there was good economic growth.  And it was wrong to increase the cost of doing business (raising interest rates, increasing regulations, raising taxes, raising tariffs, restricting imports, etc.) during a recession.  The natural market forces wouldn’t have made those wrong decisions.  The government created the recession.  Then, when they tried to ‘fix’ the recession they created, they created the Great Depression.

World War I created an economic boom that we couldn’t sustain long after the war.  The farmers because their mechanization just grew too much stuff.  Our industrial sector because of bad government policy.  World War II fixed our broken economy.  We threw away most of that bad government policy and business roared to meet the demands of war-torn Europe.  But, once again, we could not sustain our post-war economy because of bad government policy.

THE ECONOMY ROARED in the 1950s.  World War II devastated the world’s economies.  We stood all but alone to fill the void.  This changed in the 1960s.  Unions became more powerful, demanding more of the pie.  This increased the cost of doing business.  This corresponded with the reemergence of those once war-torn economies.  Export markets not only shrunk, but domestic markets had new competition.  Government spending exploded.  Kennedy poured money into NASA to beat the Soviets to the moon.  The costs of the nuclear arms race grew.  Vietnam became more and more costly with no end in sight.  And LBJ created the biggest government entitlement programs since FDR created Social Security.  The size of government swelled, adding more workers to the government payroll.  They raised taxes.  But even high taxes could not prevent huge deficits.

JFK cut taxes and the economy grew.  It was able to sustain his spending.  LBJ increased taxes and the economy contracted.  There wasn’t a chance in hell the economy would support his spending.  Unwilling to cut spending and with taxes already high, the government started to print more money to pay its bills.  Much like Weimar Germany did in the 1920s (which ultimately resulted in hyperinflation).  Inflation heated up. 

Nixon would continue the process saying “we are all Keynesians now.”  Keynesian economics believed in Big Government managing the business cycle.  It puts all faith on the demand side of the equation.  Do everything to increase the disposable money people have so they can buy stuff, thus stimulating the economy.  But most of those things (wage and price controls, government subsidies, tariffs, import restrictions, regulation, etc.) typically had the opposite effect on the supply side of the equation.  The job producing side.  Those policies increased the cost of doing business.  So businesses didn’t grow.  Higher costs and lower sales pushed them into recession.  This increased unemployment.  Which, of course, reduces tax receipts.  Falling ever shorter from meeting its costs via taxes, it printed more money.  This further stoked the fires of inflation.

When Nixon took office, the dollar was the world’s reserve currency and convertible into gold.  But our monetary policy was making the dollar weak.  As they depreciated the dollar, the cost of gold in dollars soared.  Nations were buying ‘cheap’ dollars and converting them into gold at much higher market exchange rate.  Gold was flying out of the country.  To stop the gold flight, Nixon suspended the convertibility of the dollar. 

Inflation soared.  As did interest rates.  Ford did nothing to address the core problem.  During the next presidential campaign, Carter asked the nation if they were better off than they were 4 years ago.  They weren’t.  Carter won.  By that time we had double digit inflation and interest rates.  The Carter presidency was identified by malaise and stagflation (inflation AND recession at the same time).  We measured our economic woes by the misery index (the unemployment rate plus the inflation rate).  Big Government spending was smothering the nation.  And Jimmy Carter did not address that problem.  He, too, was a Keynesian. 

During the 1980 presidential election, Reagan asked the American people if they were better off now than they were 4 years ago.  The answer was, again, ‘no’.  Reagan won the election.  He was not a Keynesian.  He cut taxes like Harding and JFK did.  He learned the proper lesson from the Great Depression.  And he didn’t repeat any of their (Hoover and FDR) mistakes.  The recession did not turn into depression.  The economy recovered.  And soared once again.

MONETARY POLICY IS crucial to a healthy and growing economy.  Businesses need to borrow to grow and create jobs.  However, monetary policy is not the be-all and end-all of economic growth.  Anti-business government policies will NOT make a business expand and add jobs no matter how cheap money is to borrow.  Three bursts of economic activity in the 20th century followed tax-cuts/deregulation (the Harding, JFK and Reagan administrations).  Tax increases/new regulation killed economic growth (the Hoover/FDR and LBJ/Nixon/Ford/Carter administrations).  Good monetary policies complimented the former.  Some of the worst monetary policies accompanied the latter.  This is historical record.  Some would do well to learn it.

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